Where I live in Sydney, Australia there is a sense of franticness in the air. Traffic has come to a standstill as people add various silly season shenanigans to their already overloaded schedules in the extreme heat of the Australian summer. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy this time of year and I’m especially looking forward to our Harvey family Christmas Eve where we celebrate Danish style and come together for important Christmas rituals like almond rice pudding and rum balls. But I know I won’t be alone in allowing the holiday season to get the better of me and by the time all is said and done, some of my healthy habits will have slipped and I’ll probably be like the average Australian and have gained between 0.8 and 1.5 kg over the Christmas period.
In a few weeks the excesses of the holiday season will be behind us, and determined to turn over a new leaf, between 40% and 50% of us will take the “New Year New Me” pledge. As we count down to midnight on the 31st of December, we’ll unite in our intentions to loose weight, eat better, exercise more, save money, stop smoking, or some other noble task we think will lead to self improvement. Unfortunately, depending on what it is we’ve pledged to do, studies have shown that somewhere between 35% and 89% of us will have failed, often within the first week.
The reason for these dismal findings is that while we truly mean it when we make these promises of self-betterment, having an intention to change our behaviour is not enough to actually lead to behaviour change. In the research community, this phenomenon is called the intention behaviour gap and it’s been observed in various domains including intentions to exercise more, eat more healthily, be more careful with the disclosure of our personal information, and even in our intentions to make ethical purchases. Even if you really really intend to change your behaviour it doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. Strong goal intentions do not guarantee success.
So what is it that separates those of us who flourish from those of us who flounder? Is this just a matter of having better self-control or stronger willpower, or are there other forces at work? When it comes to sticking to our new years resolutions, what can science tell us about how to boost our success rate? One leading researcher on goal setting and behaviour change is Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology in the Psychology Department at New York University. He’s developed a system called implementation intentions to help people try and overcome the gap between what they intend to do and what they actually do. The idea is that we do some basic planning by specifying the action we intend to take and when and where we will undertake it. Simplified, it uses an ‘if-then’ principle.
Here’s an example if your new years resolution is to get fit:
If it’s 7:00 am on a weekday, then I’ll go out for a 30 minute walk to the park and back.
The strategy also helps you plan for curve balls that might derail your efforts:
If it’s raining, then I will wear my new waterproof walking jacket.
This is essentially a habit-creating technique; by identifying opportunities in advance, you’ll start establishing new patterns that are triggered by the cues you’ve established. It helps eliminate the choices you have to make, encourages you stop and think about the obstacles you’ll face in reaching your goal, automates your behaviour, and helps conserve your willpower.
It’s a technique that has been demonstrated to be effective in increasing attendance for cervical cancer screenings, improve the likelihood of performing breast self-examinations, helping people stay on the wagon after drug and alcohol detox, encouraging good sleeping habits, getting people to take vitamins regularly and encouraging healthy eating. This technique has also been shown to be effective in getting people to exercise more after a heart attack, increase exercise frequency and duration, and increase the likelihood of sticking with an exercise program. In fact, Gollwitzer has now started turning his attention to establishing the neurological basis for its effectiveness, hypothesizing that it modulates brain waves related to perceptual and decision processes, and generates less activity in brain areas associated with effortful action control.
There’s little doubt that Gollwitzer’s planning strategy is one of the keys to helping us all build a bridge over our intention-behaviour gap, but the concept does come with a caveat. When he performed a review of 94 studies looking at its effectiveness, Gollwitzer found a medium to large effect size in helping people to achieve their goals. It’s good, but not bullet proof. Unfortunately it’s way to simplistic for us to conclude that a little bit of planning is all we need to do in order to make our new years resolutions stick. The science of behaviour change is much more complicated than that. Many of the studies demonstrating the effectiveness of Gollwitzer’s action planning technique have been combined with other motivational strategies including positive experiences and boosting self belief.
5 ways to make your resolution stick:
- Be specific about your resolution – Ie; Rather than resolving to loose weight, resolve to eat a piece of fruit instead of chocolate for an afternoon snack.
- Formulate an ‘if-then’ plan for when and where you’ll activate your resolution – I.e.; ‘If it’s the afternoon and I’m craving chocolate, then I will eat a piece of fruit instead.’
- Identify the obstacles that will get in your way and create positive cues - I.e; Remove the lolly jar from eyesight or even better, throw it out. Replace the jar with an inviting fresh fruit bowl. Enlist the help of those around you so they don’t unwittingly create temptations.
- Formulate an ‘if-then‘ plan for how you’ll handle obstacles – I.e.; If I don’t have fruit, then I will drink a glass of water and then walk to the store and get some.’
- Turn your resolution into a positive, rewarding experience. Ie; ‘I want to eat delicious, fresh, healthy fruit’, rather than ‘I have to stop eating that chocolate, even though I want to.’
All this is not to say that you should feel discouraged from making a new years resolution. But my suggestion is to think carefully before you set yourself up for failure and disappointment. After doing all this research I’ve decided I won’t be making resolution this year. I will be reaffirming my commitment to my health and reminding myself of all the little strategies I’ve implemented over the past year that mean I’m getting more sleep, meditating, exercising regularly, eating better than ever and prioritising my relationships. It’s been a great year and I’m setting the intention for more of the same in 2016.
If you’re interested in a deep dive on overcoming the intention behaviour gap you might like to check out this webinar on Self Determination Theory, led by Richard Ryan from University of Rochester and Australian Catholic University. The video offers a fascinating insight into current motivation research.